Dancers & Shifters
On a forgotten summer evening in another lifetime I sit with a crew of scruffy boys on the steps of the Munster & Leinster bank. Across from the Town Hall. Sharing drags from the butt of a Boston cigarette. Shadows lengthening along the Main Street. The heat from a rare run of hot days lingers, radiates from the building at our backs. A dance in the Town Hall has drawn us here to sit and watch the comings and goings, hoping for something, anything, that might put some vim into the evening for us. The lead singer in the Pat Burke 7 sings:
‘Don’t sit under the apple tree, with anyone else but me, anyone else but me…’
The bouncy optimism of the music echoes around The Square displacing the end-of-day listlessness that deadens the air.
The evening light dims to nightfall, the windows on the first floor of the Town Hall take on a luminous, inviting glow. We gaze up from the shadows like the damned longing for the light of heaven.
I see dancers circle the floor, flit from window to window, disappear, reappear. Waltzing, quick-stepping, jiving. The swishing, shuffling, rhythmic sound of feet on the maple floor just audible beneath the music. Some couples glide smoothly, with well-practiced movements – close, yet seeming somehow distant from one another, moving robotically in time to the music. Looking away from one another, taking in the other dancers. Others whirl past the windows with little style but great exuberance, swaying shoulders, elbows pumping, lost in the music, singing the words of the songs as they go. Some move awkwardly, jerkily, stiff and self-conscious, at odds with the rhythm and flow of the music, unable to surrender themselves to it. Girls stand near the windows, arms folded, watching the dancers, weighing up the men they might dance with, or refuse, for the next set. If they are asked.
I see flushed faces, serious faces, beaming, sweaty faces. Weathered country faces, crafty townie faces. Men with ties loosened, shirt cuffs rolled back off their wrists. The bare arms of women. Round and round the floor they go, carried along on waves of music, swaying, slowing, stopping, mingling, parting, starting all over again.
I sit on the hard steps entranced by the show being played out inside those windows of the Town Hall – outside of it, but vaguely anticipating a time when I, too, will be there, caught up in the dance.
Darkness gathers, still we sit. Big Louie briefly fills the doorway of O’Donnell’s pub, moodily listening to the music, taking in the laughing, giddy dance-goers crossing The Square to the Town Hall. Framed in the lighted rectangle of the front door I see the first short flight of steps leading upstairs to the dance floor, and the trousered legs of the men, the nyloned legs of the girls hurriedly ascending.
The dancers move more slowly past the windows as the crowd thickens inside.
It seems so alluring, so dreamlike, sitting there in the half-light of evening: lost in the music, the dance, the warm summer air, the soft cooing of pigeons from Miss Toppins’ roof, the hypnotic glow from the Town Hall windows.
Eventually we head off home to the Valley, music fading behind us as we go. Lying in bed I hear the sound of a slow song carrying faintly over the town wall and across the Clashawley:
‘Sometimes I wonder/why I spend the lonely nights/ Dreaming of a song/ The melody/ haunts my reverie……/’
I listen, imagining the sound and the words of the song fading away into silence in the darkness over Jesuit’s Walk. Becoming the ghost music that haunts heart and soul in silent moments.
I lie back, strange thoughts and feelings at work. I picture myself in a future time dressed in a natty suit, confident as Gene Kelly, part of the dance, effortlessly making all the right moves as I glide some beauty around and around the floor of the Town Hall.
Years later and a long time left school I am working on a farm in the hinterland of the old town. Busy in the cow house doing the evening milking. Throwing dirty looks at the brave Scobie, who is sitting on his arse listening to music blaring from a transistor. The farmer is an Englishman, owner of a brand new herd of mostly Friesian cows. Scobie has gulled the man into believing that the cows would love to hear music at milking time.
‘They’d be so relaxed, sir,’ Scobie has told him, ‘that they’d give twice as much milk unbeknownst to themselves.’
But Scobie is the one relaxed by the music, not the cows. All he ever does during milking is sit on an upturned bucket smoking Woodbines, tapping the floor with his pointy-toed shoes, listening and singing along to whatever music comes on the transistor. Sickening me with his orders: wash their dugs well now, that one over there have mastitis in her hind tit, get the scissors for that one’s shitty tail. As if he is the boss. Telling me to do things he would never bother doing himself. Until the boss is around, then all of a sudden he becomes hyperactive around the cow house, darting in before me to do jobs he never does, making me look like the idler.
‘Sure that young fella have me heart broke, your honour,’ he sighed once, with a weary shake of his wiry black mop.
Drawing looks in my direction from the Englishman.
‘Do ya think he’s a feckin judge or what, that you’re calling him your honour?’ I asked him, later.
‘Ah now, Jonnsie, ya have to keep in with them English lads, keep ‘em well buttered up,’ he answered, with a crafty wink.
Scobie is never stuck for an answer. Its relevance doesn’t matter, just as long as he has one. He is almost nineteen to my sixteen – but his cuteness from birth makes it seem as though a century of experience separates us. I daydream while he plots and schemes.
I still cherish my dream of gliding around the Town Hall like Gene Kelly. So, as the milking machine pulses and the music blares, I tell Scobie that I’ve signed up for dancing lessons. In the Town Hall. Every Tuesday evening. Waltzes, quick-steps, slow foxtrots. Beginners and improvers welcome, according to the bill in Mrs.Landers’ shop window.
‘That’s a good move, all right, Jonnsie, good dancers make good shifters, ‘cos you’ve a better chance o’ getting the shift if you can dance, get around the floor without trampling all over a young wans toes. They love fellas who can waltz and squire them around the floor.’
“The Black Velvet Band” comes on the tranny.
‘JAAAYSUS, I love this one,’ Scobie roars, jumping up, grabbing me, forcing me into reverse, whirling me around.
‘Willya feck off, Scobie,’ I shout.
‘Her eyes they shone like the diamonds you’d swear she was queen of the land….’ he sings, dancing me around the cow house.
‘The cows flap their ears, swing their tails.
‘Getting round corners is tricky, you have to have the knack, relax willya Jonnsie, lave the steering to me,’ he roars, one elbow pumping, attempting to twirl and turn me into the bottom corner of the cow house.
He rams into the rear end of the little blue cow. A torrent of scutter explodes from beneath her tail splattering all over Scobie’s pointy-toed shoes as he jumps to one side.
‘Well, ya bony aul’ feckin cripple, ya have me shoes destroyed,’ he roars.
‘Ya should be wearing your weltens at work, Scobie, not them winklepickers,’ I say.
‘Weltens, me arse,’ he shouts, ‘look at her, she’s a miserable aul’ bag o’ bones, there’s more scutter comes outa that one than milk.’
That ends the hoedown in the cow house.
Every Wednesday Scobie quizzes me about the dancing lessons from the evening before.
‘Arrah, I know all that stuff, sure I could teach you more about dancing than that instructor one – for half the price,’ he says.
He shows off, waltzing and quick-stepping, twisting and turning, shaping around the cow house with made-up moves and a bucket clutched to his breast.
‘By Jaysus, I could teach that one a few steps, so I could,’ he says.
‘Who taught you, Scobie?’ I ask.
‘Who taught me?, nobody, that’s who, something just kinda takes me over like when I hear music, ‘tis in me, a pure natural so I am, I don’t even have to think about it,’ he says.
He hands me the bucket.
‘Show me your steps,’ he says.
Thinking a little practice wouldn’t do any harm I take the bucket and chance a quickstep around the cow house, trying to get my feet moving in time to the one and two, and one and two, that the sergeant-major of a dance instructor calls out to us in the Town Hall.
Scobie watches. And doubles up laughing as I stumble around.
‘Well good Jaysus almighty, Jonnsie, I’d do better meself with spancils on, I’ll tell ya one thing, ya won’t be sweeping any women offa their feet at the Hunt Ball. I pity any o’ them that have corns with you around,’ he says.
‘But sure, keep at it with the bucket there, practice makes perfect, they say – for some, anyway,’ he says.
‘You’d want to be getting in some practice yourself – at doing a bit o’ work,’ I mutter, cut to the bone.
One lazy afternoon as we lie on our backs beside a clump of buachalainns that we’re supposed to be pulling, I ask Scobie to tell me the ‘dos’ and the ‘don’ts’ of the dance hall. What I really want to know is how to go about getting the shift. Most evenings when we gather to listen to the juke box in Ma’s chipper on the Main Street lads are always trying to best one another bragging about how they shifted this one or that one, had a great coort down The Pound or up the Back Lane. So, listening to all that talk about girls and coorting was making me keen to learn the secrets of this shifting business.
‘Well now, Jonnsie, getting the shift in the Town Hall can be fairly tricky,’ Scobie answers, lighting up a Woodbine, composing himself with the air of a man who has precious knowledge to impart.
‘First off, all the girls will be lined up along one side o’ the Hall, over where the windows are looking out on the Main Street,’ Scobie says.
‘Now, the first thing you’ll have to do is make a few dags up and down the Hall, a kind of a scouting mission, to see what the talent is like and size up a few likely candidates.’
Scobie pauses to take a drag on his Woodbine.
‘Candidates for what?’ I ask.
‘For the feckin shift, what do ya think, ya eegit, ya,’ he answers, shaking his head.
‘And ya needn’t be going for the good looking ones all the time, either, they mightn’t always be the best shift you could get. I had a bit of a coort up the Back Lane one time meself with Kitty O’Neill, a rale film star, but sure, I might as well be trying to coort Fr. Reddin’s aul’ boxer dog. ‘Twas all dribble and drool.
And there’s another thing, the local wans are fierce hard to shift – if you’re local – they like fellas from far away, fellas with motor cars, no less, so you’ll have to be looking at wans coming in from a bit farther afield, say Killenaule or Drangan – or even Clonmel.’
‘But sure how could you walk a girl home if she’s from feckin Killenaule or Drangan?’ I ask.
‘Listen here now, Jonnsie, I’m only giving advice on how to shift the girl, you can figure out how to land her home yourself. Anyway, all that aul’ walking home stuff only goes on in the pictures.
‘Now, if you’re not smothered by all the beery farts and you spot a girl you think you might have a chance of shifting, wait for a slow set before you move in and ask her onto the floor. Because once you get her out there you’ll only have three songs to make your case. So, hold her right hand up with your left and put your second hand well up on her back, nearly at her shoulder-blades, well away from the danger area, but whatever ya do, don’t go fiddling with her tackling…’
‘Her tackling?’ I say.
‘Ya, it comes across her back, there, holding her in at the front, if you folley me drift, so don’t go interfering with that whatever ya do. Jaysus, if the tackling gave way and ‘twas Peggy Horan you could be smothered in an avalanche o’ diddies. And for God’s sake control them big left feet o’ yours and don’t go walking on her toes.
Then, if ya think you’re going well after the first song and she’s smiling at you and being a bit chatty before the band strikes up again, you could chance putting the two hands on her back for the second song, but don’t be letting them slide down the way, if you folley me. You know, the way you’d see some fellas, like that big hairy gobdaw from somewhere out beyond Rosegreen, and he mooching around the floor with a big paw cupping each cheek of yer wan’s bundoon and she with her hands shoved into his back pockets and the britches nearly dragged down over his big aul’ hairy arse, and they shuffling and snogging as if there was no one on the floor only themselves. Well, you can’t get away with that class of a carry on in the Town Hall, not ‘til you’re doing a strong line with a wan, or nearly feckin married even.
Now, when the second song ends, and you’re waiting for the third one to start, you could chance leaving your arm around her shoulder, nice and light mind, not landing down on her like a branch dropping off a feckin tree, and if she slips her arm around your waist that’s a sign that you can kinda draw her into you a bit during the third song, nice and cushy mind, you can’t rush the lady, and if she lies in you’re on the ball – time to start thinking of the bottle of orange, if you have the price of it. And you’d never know, if you play your cards right you might even get around her to pay for the feckin orange.’
Scobie yawns, flicks his cigarette butt into the buachalainns. I try to digest this lesson in the art of shifting.
‘Now, hop up there let you, Jonnsie, and pull a few of them buachalainns to keep the Englishman happy, then you can hunt the cows in for the milking,’ he says.
‘Are ya not going to give me a hand?’ I ask.
‘Maybe, in a while, I’ve a lot of serious thinking to be doing here first,’ Scobie answers, yawning and stretching himself out.
‘And remember this Jonnsie, there’s dancers and there’s shifters – and I’ve a funny feeling you’re neither one nor the other,’ Scobie says, ‘but sure, I suppose we can’t all be dancers and shifters.’
Soon after I head off to hunt the cows in from the Back field, mulling over Scobie’s advice as I go: from what I can see my biggest problem is that I can practice the dancing with Scobie and a yard brush or a bucket – but there is no way I can practice getting the shift. Definitely not with Scobie. It seems there can be no rehearsing when it comes to shifting – you just have to jump in if you think you have a chance.
But that was the tricky part: being able to tell when you’re in with the chance of a shift.
And so on a Friday evening in late July I am hurrying across the convent bridge, giving myself a quick bless for luck as I pass the church, all kinds of possibilities churning in my mind. Intent on meeting Scobie and a few of the boys in The Forge.
The overwhelming moment has arrived: I’m off to my first dance in the Town Hall, (permission granted by the mother) – dancing lessons done and shifting on my mind. To the music of Pat McNamara’s Band.
The week running in to the dance had seemed like a year of slow time. But the waiting is nearly over now. I hurry past the Town Hall, all empty echoes now as the band tunes up inside.
Scobie is well primed when I step into the swirling blue smoky atmosphere of the Forge. Straight away he is putting on a show.
‘Oh, ho, the hardy boy, what are ya having there, young Jonnsie?’ he calls out, loud as you like, wanting everyone to hear.
‘I’ll chance a big bottle of Celebration,’ I answer.
Trying to seem offhand ‘cos, until now, I’d only ever tasted mouthfuls from other lad’s drinks.
‘Oh ho, the boy means business – and another large Guinness for meself, Paddy,’ Scobie calls.
When the drinks appear on the counter Scobie has ghosted away.
‘How much do I owe you there, Paddy?’ Scobie shouts, thrusting a hand into his trousers pocket, suddenly sauntering back when he knows the drinks have been paid for.
‘Janey, yer an awful man, Jonnsie,’ he says, ‘an awful man, but sure, good health.’
The Celebration is sweet and gassy, filling me with a warm, pleasant glow that intensifies as we drink and smoke and play darts, arguing constantly over scores. Laughing hysterically at old jokes as the drink takes hold.
I begin to tingle inside with excitement as dance time looms. Wondering how I’ll get on at the shifting. Scobie’s advice running in the back of my mind.
Darts give way to singing. Scobie belts out ballads with eyes closed, adding words and gibberish to the ones that he only half-knows. Fellas call out ‘willya sing this one, d’ya know that one, Scobie.’
‘A large bottle, you sir, and God bless your hand,’ Scobie answers, when Mikey Condon comes up half-shot and asks what he’s having after vampng his way through ‘Release Me’ with everyone in the pub joining in on the bits that they know.
All soaring high and at one on the wings of drink and song.
Mikey Condon sings, does a little shuffle, as he places a large Guinness in front of Scobie: ‘To waste our lives would be a sin, sooooo … release me…’.
‘I’m telling ye wan thing lads, that Englebert Humpadick is some boy to sing, I’d say he’d have no bother shifting beyond in the hall tonight,’ he says.
‘No more than myself,’ Scobie says.
He winks knowingly at me.
The evening passes, he pays for nothing.
Finally, feeling immense and indestructible, our bellies filled with porter and Celebration, we cross the Square to the Town Hall.
(In a side-glance I see the steps of the Munster & Leinster bank where I’d sat a boy one long ago evening watching dance- goers cross to the Town Hall as we are crossing now.)
Up the stairs we pound, giddy, laughing with excitement, arriving into the hall with a bravado that gradually fizzles away when we see all the married couples in their suits and frocks dancing sedately around the floor. Heads turning in our direction as we burst in.
Pat McNamara’s Band play high above us on the balcony overlooking the dance floor. I notice Mikey Condon supporting himself uncertainly against a wall, smoking, head pressed against his forearm.
Soon Scobie is patrolling the hall cajoling girls onto the floor. I withdraw to the farthest corner, gathering myself as I watch all the dancers and shifters go by: married couples who seem more interested in what other dancers are doing than in one another, courting couples already heading towards tired familiarity. Girls jiving in pairs. Some hopefuls like me on the look-out for the shift.
A horsey man in yellowish britches, sports coat, cravat and brylcreemed hair is attempting an elaborate, surging sequence of mincing steps, his partner’s hand held high in the air. Scobie, doing some kind of demented quickstep that looks like a variation on the swing in the Siege of Ennis, bumps into him repeatedly, knocking him out of step. Scobie whirls carelessly away, untroubled by pained looks in his direction from the man in the yellow britches, who bestows himself tirelessly on the line of girls waiting along the window wall, escorting his chosen partners onto the floor with a flourish.
I wonder if yellow britches is double-blessed like Scobie: a dancer and a shifter.
(I am part now of what I had been looking in at all those years ago from the bank steps at the far side of the street. But reading the subtle drifts and undercurrents passing between different dancers seems less straightforward now, seems a bit more complicated than it did when seen from the outside through the eyes of a young boy.
All eyes here are secretly roving, sizing up, guessing, wondering, concealing, revealing. )
Tommy O’Connell, butty and bandy, wlth a low-slung arse in tight blue jeans, shuffles by almost embedded in a chunky-legged girl in a mini-skirt and low-cut blouse. Swaying gently, gyrating slightly, as they go. The eyes of single and married men alike stray towards that short skirt. Married women and girls who are going steady flick disdainful, sideward glances in her direction. Fix dagger eyes on their ogling partners.
Tommy chats, smiles goofily, eyes moving from the girl’s upturned face to the line of her low-cut blouse.
Some heavy shifting in progress there, I think.
‘What are ya hiding back there for,’ Scobie calls as he waltzes into my corner with a whirl, a Woodbine wobbling in the side of his mouth and a strange-looking girl clinging onto him, laughing madly at his jokes. Her hair piled precariously on top of her head, held together by pins and ribbons.
Soon after I meet Scobie on the first of many visits to the toilet.
‘Who was yer wan with the quare hair?’ I ask him.
He takes a comb from his top pocket, studies himself in the blotchy mirror as he teases at his hair.
‘She’s in from the country on a Honda 50, I have her half shifted, I’ll fall back on her later on, if nothing better turns up,’ he answers.
‘What if someone else shifts her?’ I ask.
Half-wondering if I’d chance her myself: the Honda 50 would come in handy, we could go to the pictures in Clonmel on it if things worked out. Although I didn’t fancy having to listen for too long to bursts of her machine-gun laugh.
‘Not a hope for anyone else, she thinks she’s on the ball with me,’ Scobie answers.
There goes Scobie with a few women nearly shifted, I think, and me not even daring to ask one onto the floor.
Waltzes, foxtrots, quicksteps, it doesn’t matter, every time I look the brave Scobie has a different girl on the floor. They love his all-action, jumpy, jiving style. With his shirt front open and his pointy-toed shoes curled up like the toes on Ali Baba’s boots he whirls them like tops all the way around the Hall. I half-expect to see smoke rising from the friction of their feet spinning on the floor.
I finally pluck up the courage to make a scouting pass through the heaving, pressing, pushing mass of men sizing up the line of waiting girls. Some girls stare blankly straight ahead, seeing, but trying to ignore, the hungry eyes that look them up and down. Some take an extended hand and are led to the floor.
Sudden foul smells rise.
Mikey Condon stands for an eternal moment in his crumpled suit, staring at the girls. Unevenly-buttoned shirt hanging out below his beer belly. He shuffles off along the line of waiting girls, wordlessly inviting them to dance with a big extended paw and a quizzical look on his face. One by one they give him the knock, drop their eyes to the floor. I follow in his wake, almost suffocating in the Guinness stench that trails him.
‘I suppose you’re waiting on Engelbert Humpa feckin dick?’ he says to the last girl on the line.
He turns to me.
‘Listen, young Jonnsie, if ya spot e’er a one with a bit o’ mileage up gimme a shout, willya,’ he says, heading off towards the toilets.
At the end of the hall, outside the door to the Commissioner’s Room, I come face to face with Lena Brophy from out Drangan direction. She has been coming to the Tuesday night dancing lessons here in the hall. Most evenings the instructor has paired us in the practice dances. Lena is tall, with really big hands to match the feet that have trodden on my toes more often than my feet have trodden on hers. She is lavishly made up, her perfume thickens the air. And she is sweating.
‘Well, how are ya, Jonnsie, ‘tis a great chance for us to put all the steps into practice, ain’t it?,’ she shouts at me, above the sound of the band.
She goes on talking.
‘Tis wicked close ain’t it, sure I’m in a lather o’ sweat and me backside is in bits after cycling in on me father’s aul’ bike and I wearing a big top coat for fear we’d get rain, the sweat is running down me….’
She stops and smiles after Scobie as he sweeps by.
‘God, ain’t Scobie some boy to move,’ she says.
I slip away while she is distracted.
Later I see Scobie steering her round the hall. She waves madly at me. Later still they go by and this time Lena is lying in nuzzling at Scobie’s neck. He winks craftily at me from across her shoulder. A slight movement of his head indicates that he has shifted.
We meet in the toilets again.
‘I’m on the ball with your dancing partner,’ he says.
‘She’s not my dancing partner,’ I say.
‘Aha, go on now, she told me she’s crippled from your big feet. I’ll give her a good test drive for you tonight.’
‘Listen,’ he says then, ‘why don’t ya chance the Honda 50 girl, she’s mad anxious for a shift, I put in a word for ya, so I did, Jaysus I’d say she’d be right up your street.’
‘Well, she can hop on her Honda 50 and feck off up someone else’s street,’ I say.
‘Ah now, Jonnsie, she’s some girl to ride that Honda 50,’ Scobie says.
‘I don’t care if she can ride it round a feckin Wall of Death, with that cock of hair balanced on top of her head,’ I say.
Several times I circle the hall. Joanna Morgan, who is my age, catches my eye, and, Janey Mack, she smiles at me. Is that a sign I wonder? An invitation? I pause and ponder, watching her from the tail of my eye, gathering myself for action. Time after time I set off resolutely along the line of waiting girls, each time telling myself, this is it, make your move, and each time I hang back fatally and someone else swoops in on Joanna. Set after set goes by. I hold back, waiting for the right moment.
Until the Honda 50 girl appears suddenly at my side. Drags me onto the floor.
‘Scobie said you were anxious for a whirl around the floor and a bit of an aul’ squeeze,’ she shouts into my ear, drawing me in to her ample bosom.
With her high heels and haycock of hair balanced on her head she seems to tower over me. She keeps me pressed to her breast, takes me around and around in a slow motion circle on the same spot, my feet barely touching the maple floor. Other dancers circle us like traffic flowing around a feckin monument. And worse, she doesn’t release me between songs. I fear suffocation, desperately want to break loose and run for it.
The band starts into ‘The Last Waltz.’
‘I wonder should I go or should I stay…,’ Assumpta sings along.
Go, please, I think, desperately.
I am tongue-tied with terror when she grips me even more tightly, snuggles against the side of my head and whispers, ‘would ya fancy a spin on me Honda 50, Jonnsie?’
I remember Scobie’s advice about the tackling and I am very careful with my hands, not wanting to cause an avalanche. That might finish me off altogether.
My eyes meet Joanna Morgan’s as she passes us on the floor. I think I see a slightly disappointed look on her face when she sees me embosomed in Assumpta.
But, she is not quite lying in to Bobby Mockler, the renowned shifter from out Cloneen way, who has long hair, a low-brimmed hat, and hipster trousers.
‘That Bobby hoor has more notches on his pistol than Billy the Kid and Baby Face Nelson put together,’ Scobie had told me earlier.
But Joanna is holding back despite his best efforts at getting her to lie in.
‘Don’t budge now, Jonnsie, I’ll be back in a minute, I have to take off these feckin heels and put on me flat shoes for riding the Honda,’ Assumpta says as the last dance ends.
She totters off to the cloakroom, full sure she has me shifted. You’re bloody well wrong there Assumpta, Honda 50 or not, Assumpta, I’m thinking, as I scoot downstairs and out onto the street when the nationnal anthem ends. I lean against the wall, cooling off in the fresh night air. Feeling a pang of envy as I see newly-shifted couples leave the hall, arms around one another, eyes for nothing but themselves. I stand well into the shadows in fear of Assumpta. Scobie arrives. Smoking. Smirking triumphantly.
‘Jaysus, Jonnsie, I’m on the ball with the Lena one,’ he says.
‘Are ye going down The Pound or up the Back Lane?’ I ask.
‘I don’t think coorting against a wall will be any use to me tonight, I’d say I’ll need a dry, grassy spot, I’ll probably head for the Abbey Rocks,’ he says, giving me a nudge.
‘What are ye going to do away down there?’ I ask.
‘Say the feckin rosary – what d’ya think we’re going to do, ya eegit, ya?’ Scobie answers.
Joanna Morgan smiles as she passes with her friend.
‘Oh ho, did ya see the way she was smiling at me, Jonnsie?’ he says.
‘Willya shag off Scobie,’ I say.
‘How are ya fixed with the Honda girl?’ he asks.
‘Oh Lord Scobie, I wouldn’t be able for that one at all, she nearly smothered me in the slow dances, I’d sooner rassle a feckin grizzly bear below in the Rocks,’ I say.
‘You’re on the ball with Assumpta, all right,’ he says.
‘Couldn’t you fix her up with Mikey Condon there, he’d be more able for her,’ I say, seeing Mikey lighting up as he emerges from the Hall.
‘She’s set on you, so she is, Jonnsie, but sure, the same girl would go with anyone, and what’s more, she have no tackling on,’ Scobie says.
He walks away.
No tackling, Mother o’ God, no wonder she nearly smothered me, I think.
Mikey Condon ambles over.
‘No luck tonight, young Jonnsie, Jaysus, Englebert Humpadick himself would be hard put to shift in that feckin hall,’ he says.
‘Not unless he had a car, or a Honda 50, sure even the great Bobby Mockler didn’t shift,’ I say, glad to see him turning towards Burke Street alone.
A few minutes later I watch Scobie freewheel down towards Watergate on Lena’s bike, carrying her on the bar, giggling and laughing as they gather speed.
I head for home. Suddenly behind me I hear the warning, vroom, vroom of Assumpta’s Honda 50 starting up, then the rapid revving as she takes off. Oh God, she’s coming, and she means business, I think, and duck into the telephone kiosk. I stay there, peeping out, until I see her zoom up past the Provincial Bank and hear the soft bassy boom of the bike fading away along the Moyglass road.
Danger averted, I head off along an empty Main St. Occasional after-hours drinkers slip from pubs as I go. I review the night. I’d learned some things about shifting, all right. And Scobie was right, shifting is a tricky business. It could also be a risky business when you’re dealing with ones like Assumpta. She was shiftable all right, but she was also intent on shifting someone herself, and she meant to get a man, no matter what – if no fellas were making a move to shift her, then she’d make a move to shift one of them. I’d wanted to shift too, but not just anyone, not like Assumpta. (If I really wanted I could’ve been flying towards a doubtful kind of bliss with her on the back of her Honda 50.) But the girl that I’d wanted to shift was Joanna and she hadn’t been shifted at all, even though big-time shifters like Bobby Mockler had tried. Scobie had shifted all right, and I was certain I’d be hearing about his exploits in the Rocks for a long time.
But my thoughts keep turning to Joanna Morgan: my mind settling on, and magnifying, aspects of the night that were favourable to me: yes, I tell myself, she had definitely been smiling at me, giving me the eye. Hadn’t she fought of the great swordsman of Sliabhnamon, Bobby Mockler, in favour of me? Yes, I would figure out some way to approach her. Scobie would advise me, tomorrow. If I see him tomorrow. If he comes to work tomorrow. After his exertions in the Abbey Rocks. Somehow I feel that Scobie will be resting tomorrow, that I’ll be milking on my own in the morning.
I stop outside the Capitol cinema, closed down now and in darkness. Its balcony and parterre have been ripped out, soon it will be opening as a ballroom. No longer a cinema but still to be a place of dreams and fantasies.
‘Not just a dance hall, but a feckin ballroom, no less,’ Scobie had said to me, ‘I’ll do some cutting around the floor in there, so I will.’
I picture the vast maple floor taking shape inside. More than twice the size of the Town Hall floor, I’d heard the father say. Before too long this will be the place to go dancing. A dance floor that size will mean big showbands coming to town, more dancers, more girls, more opportunities for getting the shift. No more Town Hall.
I continue towards home, wondering about Scobie and Lena in the Abbey Rocks, weaving fresh illusions about dancing, convincing myself that I really had shifted Joanna, virtually, that it was only a matter of time before the real thing came to pass, maybe when the new ballroom opens in November.
It doesn’t matter what Scobie says, I tell myself, I really am a dancer – and a shifter.